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Environment and Development

Cities for a Sustainable Future

Cities and urban centres act as accelerators for social and economic progress in the Asian and Pacific regions. The economic dynamism of our cities provides livelihood and social mobility opportunities that are not found in rural areas. Throughout history, cities have been hubs of innovation as the concentration of people, resources and ideas enable transformations to occur at tremendous speed, generating economic activity and wealth.  However, cities are also home to significant concentrations of the poor and marginalized, and they have significant impacts on the environment and people’s quality of life.

More than 50 percent of the region’s population live in cities. The region’s urban population exceeded 2.3 billion in 2019, accounting for 54 percent of the overall global urban population. Moreover, it is expected to rise to more than 2.8 billion in 2030 and reach nearly 3.5 billion in 2050 - the equivalent of adding four Tokyo-sized cities every year.  Rapid, inefficient and unplanned urbanization together with unsustainable consumption patterns and changes in lifestyles over recent decades have predominantly resulted in environmental degradation; loss of biodiversity; increased pressure on natural resources and land-use changes; exposure to air pollution and disasters; and vulnerability to climate change.

A city should not just develop organically anymore. Every block, building and neighborhood requires careful planning. Cities can play a significant role in supporting a more sustainable and inclusive future in the region. Yet, this depends on decisive action in cities and urban centres across Asia and the Pacific

Knowledge Products and Learning Tools

the Future of AP Cities

The Future of Asian and Pacific Cities 2019 report takes a fresh, forward-looking approach to urban issues. It focuses strongly on the Asia-Pacific region’s urban future – the key thematic priorities and drivers that need to be upscaled and accelerated to shape more inclusive, resilient and sustainable urban development. The report outlines how urban development policy pathways can guide cities and be in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 - Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


Urban Policy Pathways Explorer, through its interactive and engaging interface, supports urban policy makers and practitioners to dive deeply into the policy recommendations from the Future of Asian and Pacific Cities reports.

ESCAP has developed multiple e-learning courses and materials to support countries and cities in tacking various urban challenges. The Urban Gateway provides access to a new generation of those e-learning resources available to explore policy pathways towards a sustainable urban future.


Intergovernmental Processes and Regional Dialogues

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Accelerating the implementation of SDG 11

The seventh Asia Pacific Urban Forum was held in October 2019 in Penang, Malaysia, and brought together more than 5,000 participants from across the region and world to focus on the acceleration and implementation of SDG 11. This event, organized by ESCAP and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in partnership with Urbanice Malaysia and the Penang Island City Council, is the largest regional gathering of urban stakeholders.
For the first time, stakeholders at the Forum also registered voluntary commitments. The commitments made must deliver concrete results by the next session of the Asia Pacific Urban Forum in 2023. This will increase investments and impactful initiatives for implementing the New Urban Agenda, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. The Forum concluded with the Penang Platform for Sustainable Urbanization launch - an alliance of partners committed to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in cities.

Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs) is a program that supports cities in reporting their contributions towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Cities in South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific have signed up to apply the guidelines and produce VLRs to present at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development.


Technical Support and capacity building

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ESCAP also launched the Asia Pacific Mayors Academy for Sustainable Urban Development at the seventh Asia Pacific Urban Forum. This initiative was co-developed with UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments Asia-Pacific, United Nations University Institute for Advanced Study of Sustainability, the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, and the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. The program aims to work with newly-elected or appointed city mayors/governors in the Asia-Pacific region to build their capacities to implement the policy pathways and develop local climate actions and sustainable urban solutions in their communities. The academy’s peer-learning and networking allow for the cross-fertilization of ideas and solutions among cities, including addressing common impacts from the pandemic.

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ESCAP has a continued focus on improving the sustainable and efficient use of natural resources based on circular economy approaches. This component is essential to building back better and integrating resource management while simultaneously safeguarding ecosystems that will strengthen urban recoveries. This is accomplished through sustainable management and minimizing the negative trade-offs across critical sectors for resource extraction, energy and water, waste generation and land use.
To strengthen the capacities of local governments to promote a Sustainable Urban Resource Management approach, a project was formed to localize the Sustainable Development Goals in five pilot cities. This project has enabled cities to operate within planetary boundaries while fulfilling essential basic services and resilient livelihoods for all. After the pandemic hit, efforts have been made to adjust cities’ approaches to include considerations for diseases and hygiene, especially in the waste management sector.


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As cities prioritize investment in digital infrastructure systems in their COVID-19 recovery planning, the ESCAP ‘Closing the Loop’ project provides urban areas with new data tools on plastic waste generation and characterization to detect ocean-bound plastics in the urban environment.  Closing the Loop is pioneering a machine learning-based digital tool for detecting plastic waste in municipal waterways, leveraging smart city remote sensing and space applications. This will provide an enhanced evidence base to make municipal solid waste management systems more resilient, thereby accelerating the city in meeting its goals. The project, supported by the Government of Japan, implements the G20 Osaka Blue Ocean Vision and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Framework for Action on Marine Debris.




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ESCAP is currently undertaking analytical and capacity development activities supported by the Republic of Korea to enable cities to make evidence-based decisions to reduce urban air pollution. The project is significant because air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats responsible for seven million premature deaths each year, and exposure to air pollution can increase vulnerabilities to respiratory illnesses. These analytical efforts have utilized machine learning to demonstrate that the primary causes of air pollution vary significantly among urban centers, even in the same country and region.

ESCAP is also working with member States and partners to develop tools to forecast future urbanization and reporting guidelines for sustainable urban development and mainstream with pilot cities the policy pathways as a robust framework.

Through its project: Pro-poor and sustainable solid waste management in secondary cities and small towns in Asia-Pacific (2009-2018), ESCAP implemented ten pilots Integrated Resource Recovery Centers (IRRCs) in nine cities in six developing countries of the region. Baseline studies were first conducted in 17 cities to select pilot candidate cities in six countries by determining the local waste and socio-economic conditions, the technical and financial capacities, and identifying the key stakeholders. The IRRCs were implemented in the selected cities through multi-stakeholder partnerships involving local and national governments, communities, civil society organizations and private commercial entities. The implementation of the IRRCs also influenced national and local level policies for improving urban waste-to-resource recovery.